Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aimé sat at the end of a white table in a hotel room in Midtown Manhattan. At the other end of the table sat a small array of packaged Nintendo consoles and games, arranged as if they were sitting in a storefront window display ahead of the holidays.
The window behind the makeshift display looked out on a cold and rainy November morning, and Fils-Aimé was talking about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, coming out for the Nintendo Switch on Dec. 7.
I asked him who he’s been playing as.
“I’m focused right now on playing Ridley,” Fils-Aimé said, referencing one of the brand new characters coming to Smash. “My strategy is simple. It is a well-known fact that I am not a very good Super Smash Bros. player, and so my focus is I’m going to keep practicing as Ridley so that at 12:01, the morning of the 7th, I can be the very best Ridley player for a very short period of time. That’s my strategy.”
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of Nintendo’s key anchors for the 2018 holiday season, along with Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Evee!, launching on Nov. 16. Fils-Aimé was eager to discuss how much Nintendo has to offer for the holidays, including a recently announced Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Nintendo Switch bundle for Black Friday, Diablo III and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate bundles, and a Super Mario Maker Nintendo 2DS bundle.
Earlier this year, Nintendo set some pretty high sales goals for this fiscal year: 20 million units sold by March 31, 2019. As of October, the company had only pushed about 5 million units, so there needs to be a huge upswing in the next few months.
Even so, Fils-Aimé said that Nintendo isn’t backing down from that estimate.
“Our confidence is high,” he said. “October, November, December is a huge selling season globally for Nintendo. Here in the Americas, it’s upwards of 60% of our revenue, so it’s a big, big selling time.”
Fils-Aimé mentioned that Super Mario Party kicked off the season with a fantastic start, exceeding expectations “quite significantly.” The company has also seen strong reactions to its limited bundles, mentioned above, including the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate bundle put out Nov. 9 that is effectively sold out.
“We’re seeing really good consumer response to our games and our special offers, and with Pokémon and Smash Bros. to come we believe we’re very well positioned for the holidays,” Fils-Aimé said.
It’s important for companies to plan releases for these big selling seasons, and it’s something that Nintendo is very deliberate about.
“We have expectations about when [Metroid Prime 4] is going to be released”
“This is something that Mr. [Shinya] Takahashi really thinks deeply about as head of all of our internal development,” Fils-Aimé said. “We certainly think about launching key games during key selling seasons. So it was well thought-through to have, for example, Zelda as a key launch title when the Switch first came out. It was well thought-of to have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 to maintain momentum in that early launch window… It was thought-out to have a game like Super Mario Party to kick off our October selling season. It was well thought-of to have Pokémon and Smash Bros. as key anchors.”
So for a hotly anticipated game like Metroid Prime 4, which was teased at E3 in 2017, does Nintendo have an idea of when that will be coming out? Of course they do.
“Internally, we have expectations about when [Metroid Prime 4] is going to be released,” Fils-Aimé said. “We haven’t announced it, but yeah, the game is well in development.”
Nintendo thinks very deeply about its messaging when announcing games, and normally Nintendo likes to announce its games within a short window of when they will be available to players, Fils-Aimé explained.
“Typically six months to maybe a year out is what we like to do, but there are times for strategic reasons that we believe it’s important to message that a game is coming,” he said. “We did that years and years ago with Zelda. We were messaging a new Zelda experience back during the days of the Wii U… It really depends on the game, it depends on the type of development that it’s going through, and it depends on how we feel the consumer is going to respond to the particular message.”
Even with all that planning and thoughtfulness in game releases, sometimes things don’t always line up perfectly — release dates aren’t necessarily set in stone years in advance.
“We do think deeply about the sequencing of our games, but having said that, Nintendo is well-known that if a game isn’t ready, we will push out the development in order to make sure that it is as strong as possible when the game launches,” Fils-Aimé said. “During my tenure with Nintendo, we’ve pushed back development a number of times on key games — in the end it’s always worth it. Because our focus on quality is so strong.”
“Our company really has a strong commitment to that work/life balance”
This mentality of being OK with pushing back release dates plays into the recent conversations in the games industry about “crunch” and exploitation of labor, which is something that Nintendo is committed to avoiding, according to Fils-Aimé.
“Our company really has a strong commitment to that work/life balance,” he said. Certainly I can speak to it form a Nintendo of America perspective, we’re not involved in the development of our content — ours is a sales, marketing, distribution company — but certainly our mentality is that we will balance the workload, we will make sure that we deliver our results, but we do it in a way that really respects the employee.”
The conversation topic turned back over to specific video games. Less than two years into the Switch’s lifespan, many of Nintendo’s most iconic franchises have already had an entry on the console or have one on the way, including Smash, Metroid, Animal Crossing, and even Luigi’s Mansion.
I asked Fils-Aimé if it’s Nintendo’s goal to have all these different franchises have a moment in the sun on every console.
He said it is, but it’s more than just putting out a game on a console just to check each franchise name off a list.
“We’re always looking to create experiences that the consumer hasn’t even considered”
“Our goal with every system is that we launch an iconic execution within a particular franchise, whether it’s a Super Mario platforming experience, or a Smash Bros. experience, we want that execution to truly be iconic,” Fils-Aimé said. “That takes time, and that’s something that for us is very important. Ours is a company that doesn’t do annualized software, and so when we create a Zelda game, when we create a Smash Bros. game, or a Pokémon experience comes on the platform, it needs to be exceptionally compelling because we plan on selling it for a very long time.”
Of course Nintendo doesn’t just stick to their most popular franchises. They’re always creating new experiences.
“We always strive to create new content,” Fils-Aimé said. “We want to create the next Splatoon, we want to create the next Arms, we want to create the next Labo. We’re always looking to create experiences that the consumer hasn’t even considered.”
That’s just one of Nintendo’s three core business pillars, its dedicated games business. One of its other, newer pillars, mobile, is something that gets equally nuanced attention.
“What we won’t do is simply take an existing console experience and put it on mobile,” Fils-Aimé said. “We want to do something new. Super Mario Run is something new and different within the Super Mario experience. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is something different — still Animal Crossing — but a different type of experience. That’s the way that we think about it.”
Earlier this year, Nintendo announced a new Mario Kart game coming to mobile, which Fils-Aimé assured would have that key Mario Kart DNA but be different and optimized for a mobile experience.
Nintendo also sees mobile as a place to introduce new intellectual property, as we’ve seen with September’s Dragalia Lost made in partnership with Cygames.
Some other partnerships between Nintendo and other developers have popped up recently, as seen with Ubisoft and Nintendo’s team-up on Mario + Rabbids: Battle Kingdom and the inclusion of Star Fox and friends in Starlink: Battle for Atlas.
“For us, what we think about is: The company we’re working with, do they share the same values that we have? Do they have the same type of mentality when it comes to that content? Will our intellectual property be showcased in a way that’s consistent with that intellectual property? And in the end is it going to be a great experience for the consumer?” Fils-Aimé said. “Those are the things that we think about as we enter in those types of conversations.”
“That is going to be a key business pillar for us”
Beyond Nintendo’s two gaming pillars, there’s the third pillar: the growth and expansion of Nintendo’s intellectual property.
“That shows up in our relationship with Universal Studios in the park experiences that are being created,” Fils-Aimé said. “It shows up in our relationship with Illumination who’s creating a Super Mario movie in partnership with Nintendo, and so that is going to be a key business pillar for us, how we effectively utilize our intellectual property. So as we look to the future, these are things that are important to us.”
I asked about Nintendo’s movie and series plans around streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, but it’s hard to get Fils-Aimé to give up any information that Nintendo hasn’t already expressly announced.
“We are going to be exploring a range of different opportunities, and when those are ready we’ll announce them,” he said.